Archives For Words and Rabble

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Years ago, when our boys were little, we had a small community of friends that gathered in our home for several years. One evening, our oldest (three at the time) asked, in eager expectation, whether our friends were coming over. “Yes,” I answered. “Why do you like having them here?”

My son paused only a moment. “Because they love us. And they help us fight the dragons.”

In the years previous and the years since, I’m not sure I’ve heard a better definition of friendship than this one from my three-year-old. Friends (true friends) love the person we are, not the person they imagine we are or the person we pretend to be. Friends clasp arms with us as together we swing at the darkness.

I’ve often wondered what the future will reveal about how we’ve raised our sons, how we’ve done with our hopes to help them become good men who live good lives. I wonder if our meandering efforts will prove enough to help them take their good place in this topsy-turvy world. I will tell you this, though: the friends who have been in our life (thus, the friends who have been in their lives) will play a larger role in all this than most of us imagine.

When I think about how I hope to love my sons along the path toward becoming their true selves, my mind turns to the people they are blessed to encounter. There’s Tom, the master carpenter, who takes us into his shop with the massively cool racks of hand tools and takes us for walks in the woods surrounding his land, all of which exudes presence, attentiveness and respect for craft and place. There’s Corey and Juli, who’ve loved them since the day each of them came squealing into this world. There’s Debbie who asks tender, meaningful questions, provoking care and curiosity. There’s John, the poet, who sits at the kitchen table for games of Farkle and carries delight in how our boys are full-on boys, delighting too in how they are becoming men (but not yet, not yet). There’s Raul who gives them hugs and kisses on the cheek, as he does each of us each time he arrives, then pulls out his guitar for a jam session or pulls from his days as a coffee roaster and teaches my sons the art of the single pour. These friends are merely a sample – and on top of grandparents, uncle and aunts, so much love. We have so many good people in our lives, so many gifts. So many teachers.

John Lennon said he got by with a little help from his friends. We all do.

Two amazing things happened today. First, our family began our sabbatical. All Souls knows the importance of tending to body and spirit (something far too rare in churches these days) and after every six years of pastoral service, our community provides three-months for renewal, creativity, rest and joy. There will be lots of playing, reading, writing, loafing, eating, hiking – lots of laughter and tomfoolery. I won’t be completely absent here, but I also will not feel beholden to my normal weekly schedule. Let’s be whimsical.

Second, today I heard how a fella named Chris Anderson dresses up in 5-inch polkadot heels and a blue apron, dons the persona of crass Southern bell Dixie Longate and charges $40 for tickets to her Tupperware parties. People pay $40 to go to a Tupperware party. Anything’s possible, folks. Anything’s possible.

 

Until I was seven years old, Miska and I both lived in Middle Tennessee, with only 75 miles separating us. Our worlds never intersected, but we watched fireflies under the same summer sky. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we had met then. On Saturdays, my dad would often take his motorcycle out on the serpentine country roads. On a few occasions, dad loaded me on the seat behind him, and we’d roll through the hills. We always stuck to the backroads, and I wonder if it’s possible we might have rumbled past Tolleson Road. Is it possible I caught a glimpse of Miska running barefoot through the grass or lying under the big elm with her best friends, her dogs? Could I have happened by just as Miska rode the tractor with her pappy or right when she made one of her courageous jumps out their barn’s hayloft?

I don’t know, but I’ll thank God every day that fifteen years later, I found my way back to her. Strange that we’d meet in Florida of all places.

I was thinking of all this, our shared geography and the way of fate, this morning. As kids, we both remember loving the first scent of our Tennessee honeysuckle, and in our backyard now, the Virginia honeysuckle has made its first appearance. It’s a marvelous scent of life and lush bounty. And it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and the grace that has carried us to this place. Life is a wonder.

 

Frank McCourt described how the community of his beloved Limerick, Ireland would gather for the wake of a dead friend or relative. The body would lie in one room, and you would go there first to say a prayer and have a few somber moments. Then, you would enter the next room to console the widow and speak kind words of the one now gone from you. You would raise a pint in the deceased’s memory and reiterate how sad you were for all the troubles. Soon, someone would offer a funny story about your dead friend, followed by several more, then eventually someone would call out the name of his favorite song and everyone would belt out the tune. The music would grow, and the spirited melodies would carry them into the night. The younger folk would dance through the wee hours. “The idea,” Frank said, “was that the entertainment was so good, the stories were so good, the dancing was so good, the singing was so good – that if the dead could stay dead through this, they’re really dead.”

“That,” Frank added “is why we call it a wake.”

And even if the dead refused to rise, those singing and dancing found their souls reinvigorated, awake. Their hearts were heavy with grief but sturdier toward the life that stretched before them. There is a joy only those acquainted with true sorrows know, a joy hard won. A joy of protest. A joy of belligerent hope.

If our response to the the world’s anguish (whether anger or retreat, despondency or especially a righteous-sounding battlecry) has forgotten to listen to the music, to tap the toe, to rib a friend at the hilariousness or absurdity of it all, then I will not join that monotone chorus. I can not. The pains we must endure in this world exact too high a price to be wasted on such small-sighted visions. I want to sing the songs that make the people dance, even in the house of sorrows. I want to tell the stories that rouse the dead.

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter stretches 50. In the Kingdom of God, the party always outlasts the sorrow. These are the days for fresh light, for new possibilities, the days to return to the joy we’ve feared might be lost forever. If you want to know the real juice for the Christian, well we’ve landed on it right here.

There is a kind of foolishness to these days, a devil-may-care abandonment to the hope of a new world, a new marriage, a new friendship. We have known long, grueling (and necessary) days of lament. We have reckoned with all the death. But today, we pull out the bagpipes and pop the champagne. Today, we dance on the graves.

 

 

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If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

At the edge of our neighborhood, Habit for Humanity has begun a large multi-house development. The last two weeks, we’ve endured a couple dumps of snow, and the site is soaked, muddy and more than able to bog down both man and motor. This morning, a fellow (I’m going to guess one of the architects) parked his small SUV at the end of Ridge Street, walked to the back of his truck and opened the hatch. He slipped off his buffed leather boots and tossed them into the vehicle, pulling out a ragged, worn down pair of flat-toed, dirt-stompers as their replacement. This is a smart fellow. It’s good to know what kind of day (or year) you’re up against, and pick your boots accordingly.

In the days after my mom’s death, Miska, two good friends and my spiritual director Fr. James all said the same thing: Be kind and gentle with yourself. Grief comes with a thousand faces, but grief does come – and they all wanted me to remember this and to give myself the space to be frayed at the edges, to get a little lost, to expect some of my old demons to come knocking, to not be taken by surprise if the deeper questions come later rather than right away.

I know two moms, at opposite ends of the spectrum (one with a newborn, one almost an empty-nester), but life’s thrown both of them a real stinker. They experience happiness and have good desires, but there’s also lots of regret and uncertainty, more than a little exhaustion. I know lots of folks scratching as hard as they can for a good job, folks who are living the grind and praying to God the dollars are enough to see them to the end of the month. Friends accustomed to onslaughts of fear, anxiety and isolation.

Life will come at us, bringing wonder and joy but also sadness and real trouble. When we recognize this, we can know that sometimes we simply need to pull on our beaters. We’ve got to wade into the muck, and let the craziness or the despair or the rage work its way out. It will not ruin us. It will not overwhelm us. The hardness comes, and the hardness goes. In the meantime, be kind and gentle with yourself.

Our youngest son Seth has gone deep into the world of The Hobbit. Seth reads stories from the shire with feverish energy. He sketches scenes from Middle Earth and regales us with talk of his beloved Dwarves. At every opportunity, Seth ventures into our neighborhood woods (woods he refers to as Rivendell) with his sack of Hobbit wares. He feasts on the score from the movie soundtracks, ticks off every character’s name, reviews minute details from the narrative and explains intricate plot twists and Tolkien lore. Seth’s our Hobbit savant.

All this is more than a boy’s fascination with adventurous play, however. Seth has found a language for his soul. Or maybe this language has found him. A few days ago, Seth was in our backyard, earbuds delivering haunted Hobbit melodies. He paced across the yard, swinging his sword as the music and the crisp air carried him to his distant country. When Seth returned to the house, he told Miska, “You might think this is silly since I’m only a kid. But the music was so beautiful it almost made me cry.”

We all need an encounter with something so beautiful that it carries us to the verge of tears. A landscape or a story, a friendship or a blessing, a dream or a joy. We need beauty, however slight, if we are to truly live. The human spirit can survive without luxury. We can endure ravaging hardship. But wonder, beauty, ineffable joy – these are our necessities.

I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.

Several years ago, my pastor reflected on what he believed to be the most pernicious temptation for those in ministry. He did not mention sex scandals, financial impropriety or theological heresy. Rather, his prime concern was one word: ambition. The desire to achieve, to build a movement or grow a church or be revered as a leader with real savvy — all these seductions are particularly vexing because they appear so noble. If a pastor siphons church funds to build a vacation home in Miami or pursues a string of affairs with parishioners, these transgressions are easy to rebuke. So long as the church grows and the stats trend upward, however, the scenario fits our Western model of inevitable spiritual progression and, because of this, resists deeper discernment.

Yet we do have cues indicating how we pastors have surrendered our calling. If a pastor always has to have the first (or final) word…if a pastor always pushes for more, for bigger and faster — and never encourages anyone to slow down… if a pastor never has time for a slow, meaningful conversation…if a pastor never exits preaching-mode…if a pastor induces fear or nervousness or icky-reverence but never kinship… if a pastor never trembles before a text or quotes a line of poetry or offers those immensely spiritual words: “I don’t know.”… if a pastor never says “I love you” in ways that do not manipulate but come tender and flow deep into your soul… if a pastor’s ego fills up every room he enters…

I highlight pastors because our errors seem particularly egregious and especially difficult to call out. However, similar things could be said for those of us who are writers, for entrepreneurs, for plumbers, for teachers, for PTA members, for any of us who are consumed by the greed for accolades, driven by the lust for successful performance. Whenever achievement is our end, then our end will ruin us. And it will wound all those in our path.

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton to write a piece on the “The Secret of Success,” and he refused. “If I had a message to my contemporaries,” Merton wrote, “it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…”

I don’t entirely understand how to parse this. It is not as though failure is a preferred virtue. I suspect, however, that we intuitively know what Merton means. We know, in our age of unbridled ambition, how this way of being in the world rakes our soul bare. We know the pride and the vaunted hubris. We know that it wearies us. We know that we want something better.